The government’s net zero plan is impressive, but it is high risk | Chaitanya Kumar

The government’s net zero plan is impressive, but it is high risk

Finally we have a plan to reduce emissions, but much of it rests on technology that is yet to be tested at scale

Terraced houses in Walthamstow, London

Last modified on Tue 19 Oct 2021 13.50 EDT

Two weeks before the most important climate conference in history, the UK government has finally published its long-awaited net zero strategy, alongside a bevy of other policy documents upwards of 2,000 pages. By its own calculations, this is the first time the government has produced a package of measures that will help achieve its interim five yearly carbon targets leading up to net zero by the middle of the century.

The scale of transformation that the strategy is set to unleash across the entire UK economy is breathtaking. Our electricity is expected to be fully clean by 2035. Our homes will no longer have new gas boilers fitted after then either. No new polluting car will roam our roads from 2030 and we will plant trees in an area the size of Milton Keynes every year from 2025, and all of this at a cost that is less than what we spend on defence each year. Across industry, finance, farming, waste and every other imaginable sector, carbon reduction is set to be the new mantra.

The response to the strategy so far has fallen along expected lines, with campaigners claiming that it falls short, while those with more moderate views are quite pleased. Irrespective of opinions, the strategy allows everybody to hold the government to account against policies that have hitherto been nonexistent and which should be the new objective for civil society. This is particularly important when considering the government’s attitude to delivering on net zero – perfectly summed up in the prime minister’s foreword to the strategy where he confidently claimed that we will be flying and driving everywhere, guilt-free, with zero-emission technology.

This optimism – based on a techno-centric, market-driven vision of the future low carbon society – is what underlines the entire net zero strategy. Take for instance the reliance on greenhouse gas removal technologies that remain untested at scale. Between now and 2050, the government envisions removing and storing more carbon than we currently emit from all our homes today.

It would of course be a mistake to dismiss out of hand the possibilities that these technologies offer, but to have them play such a central role in our strategy is a gamble. To make it work would require careful planning. A similar reliance is placed on hydrogen, which the strategy foresees us using a tremendous amount of, though we barely have any production facilities in the UK today. None of this is impossible, but climate change offers very little slack for policymakers to try to fail, so getting it right the first time is paramount.

Another underlying tension within the strategy is the rift between the Treasury and No 10, evident in the paltry commitments of public finance across all sectors. There is a vague ambition to mobilise GBP90bn of private finance by 2030 instead, but this is still quite meagre. To put it into perspective, this is equivalent to the sum we have invested in renewable industry over the last decade.

The headline-grabbing announcement of a GBP5,000 subsidy for heat pumps distracts us from the lack of investment in insulation and making our homes warmer. At the New Economics Foundation, we estimate that the scale of finance committed by the government in decarbonising our leaky housing stock is less than a quarter of what is actually needed by 2025. That is why we launched a campaign called the Great Homes Upgrade, calling on the government to retrofit 19m homes by 2030. Without an investment of at least 2% of GDP annually, the strategy could well remain a non-starter, but the chancellor has an opportunity to fix that in his upcoming budget and spending review.

The government has now submitted this strategy as part of its nationally determined contribution to the UN. And despite all the well-warranted criticism, this represents a watershed moment for the UK. With public concern on climate change at an all-time high and a strong consensus across all political parties on climate action, realising this strategy and hopefully building on it should be the foremost priority for the government.

There are millions of jobs to be won and billions in economic gains to be had if we get this right.

  • Chaitanya Kumar is head of environment and green transition at the New Economics Foundation

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